ray rice controversy

The current flap about football player Ray Rice’s beating of his now-wife, Janay, may not help her but it may save other women.

In a HuffPo article, writer Rachel Leibrock has a problem with the shaming of domestic violence victims who felt compelled to tweet about their experiences with hashtags like #whyistayed. In the article, Leibrock lists her own reasons for staying in an abusive relationship, and they are the same ones that are true for nearly every woman in that situation:

I felt alone, like I had nobody else.
I worried about being able to survive, financially.
I felt shame for “allowing” myself to be treated that way in the first place, a shame that kept me captive in a vicious holding pattern.
He loved me. We were better than this.
He could change.
I should change.
It was my fault anyway.

But there is another reason why my mother stayed with my father, who routinely beat her in his drunken rages: religion.

Not hers, and not his, but the religion of his family, a particularly toxic form of fundamental Christianity that blames women for pretty much all forms of sin; if it’s not her actual sin, her original Eve-like state of natural evil made him do it.

My father got my mother pregnant at age 15, she was whisked out of school and into a home for unwed mothers, and her child was taken away and given to someone else. She married him because she was “ruined” for anyone else. Then she had me and my brother. Without a high school diploma (which she later got), she was stuck in a crappy job; one of his favorite times to beat her was on the birthday of her first child, when she would bake a cake and cry. Divorce was taboo and, if it happened, it was the woman’s fault for not being a good enough wife. And, as it often happens, he told her he’d kill her if she left.

You might say, that was a long time ago, the 1950s and 60s were different, things are better now. For many years, I worked with two domestic violence shelters and learned that one of the biggest segments of women who end up there come from Orthodox religious traditions: Jewish, Christian, or any sort of fundamentalist group that preaches the authority of men over women.

A friend of mine, in much more recent years, had a husband who would calculatedly hit her in places the bruises wouldn’t show, like the middle of her back. He would wait until the children were in bed, and she was careful not to cry out. When she went to her preacher, he told her she should just go back home and get her act together. I have heard countless stories of women who where sent back into domestic violence situations by their trusted imams, rabbis and ministers.

This is now, and this is why we need women to think about why they stay. This is why we need women to tell their stories, to put the shame where it properly belongs: on the men who beat women and on the “faith” traditions that facilitate it.

Domestic violence doesn’t affect only the woman who is enduring the abuse: it affects her children and the choices they make. I made up my mind that no man would ever, ever lay a hand on me – if you allow it once, it will happen again – and that I would never be saddled with children who made it harder to leave if it happened. My brother had a different reaction: he had kids and set out to be the best dad ever, the kind he didn’t have.

It’s not surprising that people wonder, “Girlfriend, what were you thinking?” especially when a woman marries a guy after he knocks her out cold in an elevator. If she thinks “he’ll change,” she is more than likely in for another beating, ask any domestic violence professional. That’s not shaming, that’s common sense.

I hope I’m wrong about Ray Rice, that he does change and that his wife doesn’t have children who get to watch their father abusing their mother. And I hope that every single spiritual leader of a congregation denounces, both publicly and privately, any man who hits a woman.

Kim Phillips is a Judaica artist, marketer, and certified pararabbinic in Nashville. She is also mom to Jacob, the Most Awesome Cat.


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I’m gonna love y’all.

love love love

A friend of mine, a committed Methodist, was telling me about her new preacher. The Methodists usually assign ordained ministers to their posts, and those ministers are pretty well educated: bachelors degree and seminary, at a minimum. So when my friend told me they got a “neighborhood” preacher, I was surprised. What’s a neighborhood preacher? It’s someone who hasn’t been to seminary, someone who simply feels called to serve.

I am Jewish and one of the reasons I converted to that faith is the emphasis on education. Rabbis are superbly educated: four years undergrad, five years rabbinical school, often additional MAs and PhDs, some are even rabbi/cantors. In addition to biblical studies and rabbinics, there is the Hebrew language to learn, rotations in pastoral counseling, student pulpits. Some go on to do military service as chaplains.

So my gut reaction to a “neighborhood preacher” was, uh-oh. Pure snobbery on my part.

The friend related how, on first stepping to the pulpit, this neighborhood preacher started with these words:

I’m gonna love y’all.

That’s it. No hell-fire and brimstone of the sort I knew growing up in fundamentalist churches. Just love.

The high holiday season for Jews starts in a few days. At Yom Kippur, we say a prayer of confession, or vidui, in a prayer called Al Cheyt (For Sin):

For the mistakes we committed before You under duress and willingly.
For the mistakes we committed before You through having a hard heart.
For the mistakes we committed before you through things we blurted out with our lips.
For the mistake we committed before You through harsh speech.
For the mistakes we committed before You through wronging a friend.
For the mistakes we committed before You by degrading parents and teachers.
For the mistakes we committed before You by exercising power.
For the Mistakes we committed before You against those who know, and those who do not know.
For the mistakes we have committed before You through bribery.
For the mistake we have committed before You through denial and false promises.
For the mistake we have committed before You through negative speech.
For the mistakes we have committed before You with food and drink.
For the mistakes we committed before You by being arrogant.
For the mistakes we committed before You with a strong forehead (brazenness).
For the mistakes we committed before You in throwing off the yoke (i.e. refusing to accept responsibility).
For the mistakes we committed before You through jealousy (lit: ‘a begrudging eye’).
For the mistakes we committed before You through baseless hatred.
For the mistakes we committed before You in extending the hand.
For the mistakes we committed before You through confusion of the heart.

As with most Jewish prayer, this is a communal prayer. Not only have we all done these things at one time or another, to one degree or another, but we are responsible for each other and our behaviors.

This year, I’ve seen two different synagogues articulate their own Al Cheyt prayers for their failings and omissions as organizations. One of them, composed by a friend and rabbi I greatly admire, Nicole Roberts, goes like this:

A – Acceptance of diversity within our sanctuaries and social halls
B – Bimah policies that don’t cause hurt or insult
C – Creativity (versus monotony)
D – Development of long-term strategy
E – Experimentation with new styles of worship or programming
F – Financial responsibility, sustainability, and Fundraising
G – Generosity towards both Jewish and non-Jewish causes
H – Healing, Helping, and offering Hope
I – Inspiring and being Imaginative
J – Jewish identity-building
K – Knowledge-building and Know-how
L – Life Cycle rituals that are meaningful, not rote
M – Minimising our carbon footprint
N – Nurturing optimism
O – Outreach to those who feel marginalised
P – Pastoral care and support of our members
Q – Quieting the noise of the work week on Shabbat
R – Relevance of our text study and our rituals
S – Synagogue transformation
T – Tikkun olam
U – Understanding of other cultures, religions, and movements
V – Values embodiment
W – Welcoming the stranger
X – eXcellence in Israel education for all ages
Y – Youth and Young Adult engagement
Z – Zero-tolerance for bullying, harassment, or other workplace woes*

For all the areas in which our synagogues may have fallen short of the hope and faith placed in us, by the people Israel and the God of Israel, s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu. May this season of reflection and aspiration inspire us all to renew our collective efforts in the year ahead.

Some congregants pay their dues (or tithe, or drop something in the plate, as the case may be) and expect to have religion served up on the platter they paid for. Some houses of worship provide facilities and programs and religious training for children and consider their work done. But no amount of seminary training can instill in clergy a love for people. As one of my husband’s favorite sports quotes goes, “You can’t teach that. It’s learned behavior.” And this business of congregational life is a two-way street. It is a covenant, and we are all responsible for each other.

I recently joined a new synagogue, and my fervent hope this year of 5775 is to simply be able to say, I’m gonna love y’all. And I may just go check out that neighborhood preacher.

*The Hebrew prayer is an acrostic, so the rabbi formulated the congregational Al Cheyt that way in English.

Kim Phillips is a Judaica artist, marketer, and certified pararabbinic. She is also mom to Jacob, the Most Awesome Cat.


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rear view mirror depression


CLARIFICATION: In the 24 hours since I wrote this post, I have heard and read two mental health care professionals say that articles should take care not to glorify suicide or offer it as a “way out.” This article does not aim to advocate for suicide but rather to offer to people who do not suffer from depression some inkling of how bad it can be. There is help; it’s just hard to know that when you are in the depths of depression. If the people around you are suggesting that you get some help, it may be that they are simply not equipped with the necessary tools; call the Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255. 

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Winehouse did it one way. Robin Williams did it another. People who were so very present, always in our view, then just gone. Gone.

It’s the gone-ness that is so hard to fathom, the not-here-ness.

How can someone who seemingly has it all – fame, fortune, family, children – just up and go? Who does that?

People do that. People who are in so much pain every day of their lives that dying looks better to them and, guess what, folks? It might be. If you thought you had to live every single day of your life in abject terror, with the physical pain that depression can bring all by itself, and the absolute conviction that you would never be happy again.

What if you had to live with all that and couldn’t tell anyone? What if the people you did tell – friends, family, spouse, clergy – all said, “Go get help.” And that answer just sounded like “Don’t tell me, tell somebody else” to you? What if you did get help, and it didn’t help, and you felt like more of a loser?

What if, when someone asked, “How are you today?” you said, “Not so great, actually,” and that caused them to leave skid marks in your driveway? What if depression cost you nearly every friend you had? And what if that made you angry, and the anger cost you the rest of them?

You might kill yourself.

I thought about it.

Several years of textbook PTSD (you can check the symptoms here), a horrendous physical injury, two surgeries, and my mother’s painful death in another country from something more than cancer, mind-numbing anesthesia, pain-killers, full-blown menopausal mood swings, and a genetic propensity to addiction joined together in life-crushing bout of depression.

Go. Get help. That’s what people said. Go. I nearly did.

Until you have truly made up your mind, with lots of objective evidence, that every good thing in your life is in the rear-view mirror, you don’t know from depression. Until it takes every ounce of your energy just to put your feet on the floor in the morning, you are in no position to judge.

Until you have sat with a seriously depressed person and said, “Tell me what’s bothering you,” you haven’t helped. If you haven’t seen the anger and known it came from sadness, you haven’t paid attention.

Sometimes people for whom the world is simply too painful just have to go.

Kim Phillips is an Judaica artist and marketing consultant from Nashville, Tennessee. She’s still here.

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tallit for women of the wall

Tallit with silver tzitzit.

It’s been a rough month.

On June 12, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered by Palestinians, probably Hamas operatives. In what was certainly an act of revenge, a Palestinian teenager was burned alive in a forest near Jerusalem. What followed was an increase in rockets being fired from Gaza and an escalating military response from Israel. Hardliners on both sides are asking for justice, for more revenge, and a few on both sides are asking for peace.

If anyone has a very direct, vested interest in recent events, it’s the parents of the four murdered children. Rachel Fraenkel, the mother of one of the Israeli teens, accepted a shiva call from a group of Palestinian neighbors, a very touching event in the midst of bombs and riots. It seems to me that women are often caught up in wars they didn’t start and have to deal with the fallout. Rachel Fraenkel showed more strength and grace than a thousand warriors.

But she did something else even more radical than accepting a shiva call from Palestinian neighbors: she said kaddish. You might say, why shouldn’t a mother say kaddish for her son? Why indeed. It’s not forbidden, it’s just that women in traditional Judaism don’t count in a minyan, so they’re not fulfilling a mitzvah when they say kaddish; you still need 10 men to accomplish that. But she did. And the Chief Rabbi of Israel said, “Amen.”

Meanwhile, down the road at the Kotel, the Western Wall, women are not allowed to read from a Torah scroll in a service. The “Nashot Hakotel,” Women of the Wall, still try, every month for Rosh Chodesh, to have a peaceful service there. They have been spat upon, yelled at, and even arrested, often by other women. But they refuse to be silenced.

What has any of this to do with us, as Reform Jews in the United States? Women here can read Torah, pray how they like, and be full members of a congregation if they join the one that suits them.

In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, we get the story of Zelophehad’s daughters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. Zelophehad died and left no sons, and the daughters would not have inherited his holdings under Jewish law. During a census in preparation for entering the Promised Land where holdings would be assigned, Zelophehad’s daughters went to Moses and said they felt they should receive their father’s portion. Moses took it to God, and God said, “Fine.” (Most translations render it “Their plea is just,” but the Hebrew doesn’t say that.) The daughters went through proper channels and got a ruling in their favor. They changed history.

For the Women of the Wall…no so much. They have been through every channel and have been turned back every time by the religious authorities. They have tried, peacefully, to change the system and haven’t been successful…yet. It’s likely that they will eventually prevail, much the same way that African Americans did in the civil rights era; they are up against a similarly ingrained culture.

The lesson that Zelophehad’s daughters carry to us across the millennia is this: change is possible, but it’s hard. They had to send it all the way to God, for Pete’s sake. The way we govern ourselves today is a bit different, and our channels may not go to an authority that high. But there is still much that can be done. Women’s voices are still silenced, and women are still marginalized for their gender, and civil discrimination is sometimes wrapped in a religion covering. Hobby Lobby comes to mind. Zelophehad’s daughters didn’t sit still for the status quo and neither should we. Speak up. Buck the system. Do what’s right. Don’t let it get to the point where someone has to lose a life before a little prayer can be said. Some things are so clearly “just” that even the Chief Rabbi of Israel can’t deny it.

Little things matter. People count. All the people. Give the help to the ones who need it most, to those without a voice. It’s the Jewish way, and it makes the world a much better place.

Kim Phillips is an Judaica artist, marketing consultant, and writer from Nashville, Tennessee. She wears extra silver threads in her tzitzit in honor of the Women of the Wall.

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Girlfriend, can we talk?

not your vagina

Just not about your vagina. Lady bloggers, I’m tired of hearing about it. Here’s why.

Growing up in the South, there was an unwritten rule: if it happens below the waist, we don’t talk about it in polite company. There were a bunch of other unwritten rules, like black people couldn’t live next to white people, that needed to go away. But I’d like to hang on to the below-the-waist thing.

Every single day, I’m greeted with some blog post or other about somebody’s vagina. Near as I can tell, all us ladies have one, and it’s good for two things only:

Women in my family get pregnant if you look directly at us, so I’m sure I could have had some. I didn’t, but I love seeing pictures of your babies on Facebook, many as you want. Brag on them all you like. Just don’t keep them screaming in restaurants where my dinner costs more than $20, or in religious services, weddings, funerals, or movies. Walk them outside like people used to do.

Call me a prude, but the only sex I care to hear about is mine. Don’t tell me about yours, and certainly spare me discussions of which toys your va-jay-jay likes best. Post-menopausal? Me, too. And the only thing I care to hear less about than vaginas is old vaginas.

Beyond those two things, the “lady business” is mostly just a lot of trouble. Whatever is bothering yours, most of us have had some version of that. Don’t need to hear more. Tell your gynecologist and leave me out of it.

If men blogged incessantly about their johnsons and shared their musings about their members widely on social media, we ladies would call them creeps, perverts, and maybe worse. So why is it okay for women to yap on and on about every little thing her little Jane does?

Before you comment about how I’m not a good woman or I’m insensitive to the really terrible things that can befall a vagina or maybe that I’m a lesbian or a mommy-hater, save it. Heard it all before. But if you’re also tired of hearing about other folks’ lady parts, share. You’ll be doing us all a favor.


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Mini-Mitzvahs, and Miracles

Editor’s Note: there’s a glossary at the end of this article.

Rabbi Zalman Posner z''l
Photo used with permission: www.collive.com

In the Tel Aviv airport, at the end of my first trip to Israel, I was looking for a tzedakah box to put my remaining shekels in. Across the way, there was a Chabadnik laying tefillin on a guy. They’ll have a tzedakah box, thinks I. As I dropped coins in the box, the tefillin-wrapper says, “You know Chabad?” Yes, we have Chabad where I live. “Where’s that?” Nashville. “Oh! Zalman Posner!”

Yes, Zalman Posner, z”l, the rabbi of Sherith Israel for 53 years. When I read yesterday that he had passed away, the word hasidut came to mind. Not so much in all of its various meanings about organizations, movements, and schools of thought within Judaism, but its root ~ chet, samech, dalet ~ meaning kindness, hesed.

Reb Zalman lived in a world of Judaism that I don’t move in, that I and many of my fellow Jews feel removed from. Yet, Rabbi Posner treated me with such kindness, such hesed. At a Torah study, at which women were welcome with him, someone asked a question about keeping some mitzvah or the other and he said, “If you can’t keep them all, keep some of them. If you can’t keep many, keep one. If you can’t keep a whole one, keep half of one.” A mini-mitzvah kept was better than none at all. All attempts to keep the mitzvot contribute to perfecting the world. A very gentle point of view, Hasidism at its best.

At lunch that day, after services, the Rabbi asked me to sit with him at his tish. Being a newbie to Judiasm, this was special but I didn’t realize how special. His wife, Risya, sat next to me and was very sweet and engaging. As emissaries with a long, long sojourn in Nashville, their welcome was just right. It made me want to know more, to study more, perhaps keep an extra mitzvah or two.

As I went through the conversion process, I attended a lecture by Rabbi Posner at which someone asked him to define a miracle. He said, with such kindness, and a sense of awe he never lost, “It’s all a miracle.” It is indeed.

Baruch dayan emet, blessed be the judge of truth, and may his mourners be comforted. A great man has passed. Read more about his amazing career here.

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Kim Phillips is a Judaica artist at www.hebrica.com

Z”l: abbreviation of zichrono livracham, may his memory be a blessing
Tzedakah: charitable giving, from the root for “justice”
Tefillin: prayer phylacteries
Chabad: organization of Hasidic Jewry; more here.
Hasidut: kindness, school of Jewish thought; more here.
Mitzvah: pl. mitzvot, commandment
Tish: table

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This Passover, let ‘em eat cake.

chocolate cake for passover

We Jews, especially Reform Jews, have a complicated relationship with food. You might think in the Orthodox tradition it would be cut and dried—do this, don’t do that—but not so. At Passover, the holiday most fraught with food issues, even the most observant Jews don’t agree. (Surprise.) The Sephardim often allow themselves rice and beans, while the Ashkenazim go cold turkey on ANYthing that may ferment. Given that I am a kosher vegetarian, my Passover diet roughly matches that of a rabbi from 18th century Lithuania, only without the meat. It’s pretty grim.

This year, in the run-up to Passover, I’m drooling over the mouth-watering images of Passover foods on Pinterest. There’s chocolate matzah, Pesach pizza, sweet potato fries, gefilte sushi, and my personal favorite: the BEST EVER KOSHER-FOR-PASSOVER COOKIE RECIPES! And I’m pinning those suckers like crazy. (Okay, not the gefilte sushi. Eeuw.) I’m searching the limited Passover section at Publix for my favorite chocolate macaroons and scouring the local liquor stores for drinkable (I do NOT put Manieschwitz in this category) pesadik wines. That kosher-for-Passover beer is calling my name, too.

The seder I attended was a shmancy affair with a tender brisket (not for me, but my friends enjoyed it), a potato casserole that weighs in at about 1,200 calories per serving (I brought it, so I know), and a flourless chocolate torte that would make a Jehovah’s Witness jump ship. Oh, the usual ritual foods were on the table, including plenty of the “bread of our affliction,” and we told the story of how our ancestors suffered in Egypt, while we didn’t.

This week, it has been egg salad, matzah, and potatoes. The pesadik wine makes the slave-diet a bit more tolerable, but I kvetch anyhow, and I’m too lazy to make all those sumptuous Pinterest treats. My way-Reform friends roll their eyes and butter their toast; Kim’s lost her mind… another convert gone round the bend. Why suffer? Let’s enjoy our freedom to have a biscuit. Or beer. Or pork barbecue. Or the shrimp.

I get that. I really do. We have the freedom to make choices, and we’ve had to fight one Pharaoh or another for thousands of years to keep it. The world has changed in all that time, and what difference does it make whether I eat chametz or not? Maybe Passover kosher is just plain silly.

Or maybe suffering has its purposes.

What is enslaving us now? What is keeping us from being the best Jews we can be? The Israelites couldn’t find out who they really were until they got away from their oppression in Egypt. They suffered 40 more years in the desert before they were ready to accept their destiny, to be chosen as a distinct people, a “nation of priests.” What does that mean today? Maybe it’s more important to think about how (and by whom) our food is grown than to do without yummy yeasty bread. Or, maybe by forgoing the bagels for a few days, on our next trip to Brueggers, we’ll wonder if the person behind the counter is making more than $7.25 an hour. Were the tomatoes picked by an undocumented immigrant woman who is sexually harassed but keeps it to herself out of fear of deportation? How was the cow raised, and slaughtered, for the next juicy Rueben at Noshville?

Making the conscious choice to follow what some consider to be an outdated tradition might have spiritual benefits we didn’t expect. The fact that Reform Jews consider keeping Passover kosher a choice doesn’t necessarily diminish the integrity of the holiday. So we tell our story of suffering and freedom, and hope there’s enough flourless chocolate torte to go around. Let’s make it so everybody gets cake.

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Kim Phillips is a Judaica artist at www.hebrica.com

Note: The contents of this blog are copyrighted. If you want to refer to a post, you may publish a short excerpt with a link back to the source. That’s all.

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